Row 0, Seat 0: When Spanish football came together for the player who slept

Dear Friend,

You won’t be able to read this letter. For the past three years, you haven’t been able to read anything. For the past three years, you have had a son you haven’t even been able to get to know.

Unless God works some miracle —you will never read these things, kiss your son, watch the swallows at sunset, or feel the rain on your face on an afternoon of football.

I have to confess to having a lump in my throat, and I would give anything to have not begun to write this. I have to admit that my longing for life is so overwhelming that thinking of you pains me greatly. 

I know that you’re not a unique case. In fact, in Madrid, another guy has spent over a year in a hospital, neither dead nor alive. But you are famous; he is unknown. You have a selfless wife who never leaves your bedside; he has only his mother. In reality, I’m writing to you both, but I address it to you as your name that has been the catalyst for a wave of compassion and camaraderie. Last night, when I watched your son on television kicking the ball to start the game, I had to use all my strength to choke back the tears.

God bless those who still feel the urge for charity. But for me, this noble game was less an effort to raise funds but more an expression of your name, youth, and the sporting world’s solidarity. You were a footballer, and it was in your work that you suffered the injury that has left you in a hospital bed these three years. So many have made an effort to be by your side. If the human will cannot give you back your smile, health, and movement, then at least it has given us a glimpse of an affection that will never be forgotten.

Tomàs Salvador 
La Vanguardia, 20th June 1967

Tall, powerful and topped with a distinctive burst of thick red hair, Miguel Martínez stood out on the football fields of Barcelona, not just for his striking appearance but also for his assured defensive abilities. Comfortable in defence or midfield, or often simply detailed to mark the opposition’s most talented player, Martínez progressed steadily from youth to the semi-professional ranks of Catalan football. From third-tier football with Granollers, he moved up to the second division with Sabadell before signing for CD Condal — a club affiliated to FC Barcelona.

A call-up for military service in the summer of 1961 threatened to stymie that progress, with Martínez sent to serve in the marine corps in Cadíz. But, far from a hindrance, Martínez’s time in Andalusia proved life-changing. A loan spell with local side San Fernando allowed him to continue playing in Segunda and brought him into the orbit of first-division Real Betis, whose scouts urged the club to sign a player they felt would be in demand. 

It was also in San Fernando that Martínez met his wife, Josefina, the daughter of the town’s leading furniture company, Muebles Marquez.

Martínez took to life in Primera with ease and joined a talented group of players at Betis. The club was reinvigorated after finally reemerging from a spell in Segunda and had finally found the means and self-confidence to purchase their own stadium.

Martínez on the front cover of Real Betis magazine Verde y Blanco, 1962

Early in Martínez’s second season at the club, Betis travelled to Real Madrid as league leaders, where Martínez was tasked with shutting down Ferenc Puskás. While the Madrid public were not impressed by Betis’ obdurate approach to the game, Martínez’s role in helping Betis grind out a share of the points drew plaudits from the press.

Betis eventually finished third, and their efforts were noticed by the incoming Atlético Madrid president, Vicente Calderón, who was attempting to rescue a season which had seen his club slump to seventh place. Calderón brokered a deal to sign three Betis players in time for the cup, which was then played as an epilogue to the league season.

The transfer included Martínez, the full-back Colo, and the attacking midfielder Luis Aragonés. All three immediately contributed as Atlético reached the final of the cup, where they were defeated by Real Zaragoza.

In the longer term, Aragonés would go on to become one the most influential figures in the history of Atlético Madrid, playing for a decade before retiring to take over as manager. Colo gave five seasons of exemplary service in defence, helping Atlético win a first league title in 15 years and talented enough to be occasionally called up for the Spanish national team. 

But while his teammates were gaining international caps and accumulating silverware, Martínez’s four cup appearances would tragically prove to be his last. 

For Atlético Madrid, the summer of 1964 followed the typical pattern of a high-profile Spanish club. After a few weeks of rest, the team embarked on a tour of South America. Such tours were an escape from the relentless heat of the Spanish summer but, more importantly, a lucrative source of funds.

Atlético’s tour was an ambitious one, a month-long and taking in six different countries. They began in Buenos Aires with a 1-0 defeat to Racing Club before the squad crossed the Río de la Plata to Montevideo, where a superb Peñarol side beat them by the same scoreline in front of a crowd of 60,000 in the Estadio Centenario.

Back at the team’s Columbia Palace hotel, the players dined together before going their separate ways for the evening. While some headed out to sample the local nightlife, others retired to the lounge to play cards. As a core member of the card school, Martínez was in the latter group, but after just a few hands, he left the game, telling his companions that he felt unwell and thought it best to get an early night.

A few hours later, when Colo returned to the room the two ex-Betis teammates shared, he found Martínez unconscious, unresponsive and with an alarmingly grey complexion. Colo immediately raised the alarm and scrambled to wake the club doctor. Martínez was rushed by ambulance to the Hospital Británico, where neurologists diagnosed a meningoencephalitis that had caused Martínez to fall into a coma.

A stunned Calderón relayed the news to Martínez’s family in Barcelona and his wife in Cádiz, arranging for them to be brought to Madrid to await the next flight to Montevideo.

That a strapping and apparently healthy 23-year-old could fall so suddenly and gravely ill mystified doctors and club staff. Calderón reported the player to have been in good health, noting that Martínez had been fearful of the long flight across the Atlantic but in good spirits and enjoying his first week in South America.

Discussion eventually centred around two incidents that occurred during Martínez’s time at Betis.

The first happened during Martínez’s Betis debut against Barcelona two years previously. The player had taken a heavy blow to the head early in the game and had reportedly passed out at half-time. Despite not being able to complete the game, Martínez dutifully took his place in the starting line-up the following week.

A more serious episode took place during a pre-season tour of Galicia a year later. Martínez again suffered a blow to the head, which this time led to a seizure. Club doctors referred Martínez to a neurologist who advised Martínez that he shouldn’t play until further tests had taken place. But a second opinion was sought, which allowed Martínez returned to the team after missing just a handful of games, bypassing the diagnostics altogether.

The latter case drew speculation of possible legal action between the two clubs and forced Betis president Benito Villamarín onto the defensive, insisting his club had done everything in the best interests of the player’s health. In the absence of clear legislation, Calderón decided against a protracted legal route, instead continuing to support the player at the club’s expense.

After a brief hiatus, Atlético’s tour continued with the squad travelling through Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador then Venezuela, receiving daily updates on their stricken teammate. At first, the team were buoyed by reports of an improvement, but that hope proved short-lived. At the beginning of August, after three weeks in a coma and with no prospect of surgical intervention, the decision was made to bring Martínez back to Spain.

Flying Martínez home was a complex operation, one which required collaboration between Atlético, the Spanish Embassy in Montevideo, health services on both sides of the Atlantic and even the national air carrier, Iberia — who provided an aeroplane. Martínez, along with his family and entire Uruguayan medical staff, was flown to Barajas airport in Madrid, where he was met by an ambulance and taken across the city to the Clínica de la Concepción.

On the tarmac, Calderón pledged the club’s ongoing support to the player and his family: “We have done, and will continue to do, everything necessary to help save his life. We will not spare any effort nor put any limit on our help.” Calderón’s quotes were carried in the following day’s newspapers along with the affecting images of the inert Martínez being carried from the aeroplane on a stretcher.

Martínez’s care was passed to the distinguished neurosurgeon, Doctor Sixto Obrador, who told reporters that he agreed with the prognosis of his Uruguayan colleagues. “I’m pessimistic. There’s no case for surgery — if there was, we would do it immediately. For now, the only thing we can do is think in the long term and place our hopes in the patient’s youth.”

Martínez’s case gradually faded from the public’s consciousness as the news cycle moved on. Weeks became months, months became years as time passed silently in room 466 of the Clínica de la Concepción. Martínez’s young wife devotedly continued her bedside vigil while her parents raised the couple’s young son.

“If one day — God willing –– science achieves the miracle of waking Miguel Martínez, the Atlético Madrid player would hardly know who this boy is climbing up to kiss him.” 

A picture of Miguelín Martínez clambering up on a hospital bed to plant a gentle kiss on his father’s head took up most of page ten in ABC on the morning of the 14th of June 1967. After three years, the story of the player who slept was back in the news.

“The time has arrived for the fans to demonstrate their support for Miguel Martínez. Tonight his Atlético teammates will play ‘The Rest of Spain’ –– a team containing a host of stars. Young Miguelín will wear the Atletico colours as he kicks off the match played in homage to his father.”

With Martínez’s Atlético contract expiring and no prospect of any improvement in the player’s condition, Calderón had decided a new effort was needed to be made to pay the ongoing medical bills and support the player’s family in the longer term. He enlisted the help of the influential Catalan journalist Morera Falcó, and the pair arranged for a Spanish national selection to play Atlético at their brand new home on the Rio Manzanares. 

It was a type of game that was a relatively common way of rewarding a long-serving player. But given the circumstances, this particular match was sure to draw much wider attention than a regular benefit game. Falcó was keen to capitalise on that goodwill and developed an ingenious concept. As well as the usual match tickets, a special category allowed anyone in Spain to pay for a symbolic ticket that gave no actual entry to the ground. These were printed as ‘Row 0, Seat 0’ and were distributed through the regional federations.

Poster advertising tickets for the benefit match

The idea caught on. One organiser reported receiving an envelope from two young brothers containing the correct 100 peseta fee. Alongside it was a note asking for the ticket not to be sent in case their parents found out how they had spent their pocket money.

Calderón and Falcó’s persuasiveness extended to institutional level too. RTVE, the national broadcaster, paid a sizeable fee to show the game live, while the Spanish Football Federation and the player’s union also made donations.

The ceremony on the evening of the game began with a visit to Martínez’s hospital room. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the government’s delegate for sport, awarded the player the Silver Medal of Sporting Achievement, which was pinned to his bedsheet alongside medals from Atlético and Betis.

Four kilometres further south, at the Estadio Manzanares, the two captains, Spain’s Paco Gento and Atlético’s Enrique Collar, emerged onto the field holding hands with Martínez’s son who was dressed in a miniature Atlético kit, his father’s number six printed on the back. 

After Miguelín took the honorary kick-off, the two captains laid flowers on a sideline seat set up to represent those that had donated by purchasing Row Zero tickets.

The game finished in a 2-0 win for the Spanish selection. But it became apparent early on that there were swathes of empty seats, and the attendance, when announced, was barely 10,000 — a fact that infuriated Falcó.

“I have a reputation in Barcelona for being firm but fair. Here I have to be the same. Frankly, I’m disappointed and feel totally let down by the Madrid public from whom we expected much better. Especially in a case of this nature. Rather than come along and lend their support, fans in Madrid have chosen to stay at home and watch TV.”

An exasperated Falcó pointed out that the two million pesetas raised from the gate receipts, broadcasting rights and other donations would only support Martínez and his family for a couple of years.

It took Falcó a few days to calm down, but when he did, he received some somewhat more positive news. When the returns from the regional federations had been collated, they showed that an astonishing figure of 31,000 Row Zero tickets had been sold across the country. 

What Falcó had devised as a way of supplementing the main gate receipts had, in fact, outstripped them by a factor of three to one. The donations from fans with no intention of attending the game pushed the grand total to over five million pesetas: a figure in line with – if not surpassing – what Falcó and Calderón had envisaged.

Once again, the case of Miguel Martínez made the newspaper headlines and led the newsreels, then once again, attention drifted elsewhere. His wife, Josefina, remained at his bedside — always with the same line for whoever asked. “One day, he’ll wake up, and he’ll look straight at me and say: ‘Wow, what a sleepyhead I am!’”

Josefina’s vigil continued for another five years until, at 6.30am on Wednesday, the 28th of September 1972, Martínez passed away at the age of 33. The cause of death was recorded as kidney failure, unrelated to the condition that had kept him in a coma for over eight years.

When news reached Atlético, that morning’s training session was cancelled. Players, coaches and board members made their way to room 466 of the Clínica de la Concepción, where they paid their last respects to their teammates and condolences to his family. That Sunday, Atlético took to the field at home to Espanyol wearing black armbands as a mark of respect.

Two days later, Martínez was laid to rest in the Cementerio de la Almudena, the main cemetery of Madrid. The city where he’d been for nearly a decade but hardly knew.

Josefina continued to fight her husband’s cause, bringing two cases to court in an attempt to have the death classified as a work accident, something that would title her and her son to draw down a pension. Her testimony highlighted the two head injuries Martínez suffered while playing for Betis, but the judge ruled against her on both occasions.  

For the son Martínez barely got to know, that night in 1967 would not be the only time he took to a football field in homage to his father. In the early 1980s, Miguelín followed in his father’s footsteps playing two seasons in defence for San Fernando — a touching echo of one of the happiest years of Miguel Martínez’s short life.

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